Investing in Bahrain

Interview with Suha Karzoon, CFO of Mumtalakat.

Suha Karzoon, CFO of Mumtalakat has made it to the Forbes List of 100 Most Powerful Arab Businesswomen for the third consecutive year. Gulf Insider asked her some penetrating questions about her the insights on the investments sector in the Kingdom.

How do international investors consider Bahrain and what factors impact their decision?

The Kingdom of Bahrain, is an attractive prospect to international companies because of the unique positioning of the country that allows residing companies to be able to service the region as a whole. The cost of operations in the Kingdom is at a lower cost when compared to others in the region, with the added attraction of highly skilled local workforce and liberal business environment for the investors in the region.

Mumtalakat seeks out investment opportunities both on an international as well as on a regional level. While we are commercially focused, we pay specific attention to investments that may have a “Bahrain angle.” What we mean by Bahrain angle is the investment opportunity that has its own merit but whose service or sector knowledge can also be brought to the Kingdom. For example, we established Mueller Middle East for the construction of the first copper tube manufacturing facility in Bahrain as a joint venture. The idea was first developed as a result of our strong investment relationships and now it is on its construction phase.

What Mumtalakat brings to the equation is the promise of a partner who is also an active participant. We are not financiers per se. When we look at investment opportunities, apart from the commercial attractiveness of the opportunity, we also scrutinize the company’s corporate governance practices and it is important to us that when we partner with companies,
our partners hold the same values that we do.

As the CFO of Mumtalakat, you oversee the financial planning and outcomes of its diverse portfolio. Please share some highlights about the role.

Since I first entered the finance field, 20 years ago, the role of a CFO has changed and evolved over time. The traditional CFO’s role was to manage the financial compliance and financial reporting of predominately historical data that is more financial in nature.

  However, the present day stakeholders, shareholders and investors are savvier and demand more than a pure financial perspective when looking at the company’s performance. They are interested in understanding the value proposition that any company brings to the table like-What ‘ value add’ does the company bring to the industry? How does the company plan to grow and what plans does it have in place to get there? What are risks facing the company and  its plans to mitigate crises? We ask ourselves-what value does the company bring to the community it operates in? What CSR activities does it get involved in? What are the environmental impacts of the company’s operations and how does it fulfill its responsibilities towards preserving the environment? etc.

In this scenario, the present day CFO cannot focus purely on the financial narrative, but is required to outline the company’s story and its impact on the business environment in general. This is a significant shift from when I started in the industry, and I must say is a welcome one.

Your success (being placed in the Forbes’ list) is considered as Mumtalakat’s commitment towards gender equality and the promotion of women to leadership positions. Do you believe that gender equality is still an issue to be addressed in the business sector of the Kingdom?

Women represent 32% of the total private sector workforce in Bahrain according to the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) data. There have been significant strides in promoting equal opportunities in the Kingdom mainly driven by the various programs undertaken by the SCW under the leadership of HRH Princess Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa.

Globally, less than 1/3 of senior and middle management positions are held by women. Female representation in the work place or in leadership positions is not a “social issue” but one of purely business sense. When more women work, economies grow. Studies have shown time and time again that increased diversity in the workplace and on the Boards of Directors results in improved organizational effectiveness. According to UN estimates, companies with three or more women in senior management functions, score higher in all dimensions. Gender diverse companies perform significantly better than their competition, have higher sales and greater return on capital and equity.

While there has been significant progress particularly in comparison to neighboring countries in the MENA region, there is still some way to go.

Who deserves your greatest acknowledgment for supporting you in your journey?

In my case, I would like to mention first and foremost my father, God bless his soul who instilled in me the belief that there are no limits to what I can achieve.

Secondly I have been fortunate to work with a number of important leasers throughout my career over 20 years, who have challenged and entrusted me with their confidence in my abilities. Finally and most importantly, I owe my husband. There are times when I may drop the ball on some of my personal responsibilities and those are the times my husband’s support becomes invaluable.

One personal question: Do you have any free time during your busy schedule? If yes, what are your favorite activities outside the business?

I’m a voracious reader. So any free time I can spare, you will find me in a quiet corner in the house, lost in a
book.

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